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New tools sought for old places

In the end, the history buffs said Lykes Bros. simply outgunned them.

To prepare for last week's City Council debate on the future of the First National Bank and Tampa Gas Co. buildings, preservationists recruited whatever specialists they could find on appraisal, construction costs and renovation of historic landmarks.

Most volunteered their time, and some came across as less polished and prepared than Lykes' hired experts. One, for example, looked as if he had just been rousted from a study carrel at the public library.

By contrast, Lykes' lawyers, appraisers, architects and construction professionals arrived with stacks of charts, scads of reports and arguments that made hash of the preservationists' case.

As a result, council members who said they wanted to find a way to save the buildings rejected the preservationists' claim that Lykes could restore them for as little as $15 a square foot.

"It's tough, as preservationists, when you're mostly volunteers to go head to head with a firm that's got its own experts," said Andrew Ham, chairman of the Historic Tampa-Hillsborough County Preservation Board. "We thought we did the best that we could with the resources we had."

Now that Lykes has the approval it needs to demolish the buildings, preservationists say their chances of saving historic landmarks in the future would be better if they have money as well as a preservation ordinance on their side.

"The results of what happened this week would indicate that (a preservation ordinance alone is) not enough," said Ruth Giordano, president of Tampa Preservation Inc. "We need a little bit more of an incentive for owners to want to restore their property, and that incentive needs to be financial."

Some incentives already exist. For example, property owners can qualify for federal tax credits if they restore historic buildings to standards set by the U.S. Department of the Interior. In addition, renovations in some designated historic areas such as Ybor City also can qualify for corporate tax credits from the state.

Mrs. Giordano said local preservationists have urged Congress to pass H.R. 1406, a bill that would remove or ease limitations that limit investor participation in historic renovation projects now.

Preservationists say local officials also could help make renovating historic structures more cost-effective.

"The one good thing that may come out of this is that they might explore what their options may be in that regard," Mrs. Giordano said.

City Council member Linda Saul-Sena, an urban planner with an interest in preservation, says the City Council should pass an ordinance to freeze city property taxes when owners restore historic buildings. The Legislature authorized such ordinances in its last session, and the County Commission already has one on the books.

"It freezes people's taxes for 10 years at the level where they were before they fixed up the building" so owners aren't "penalized" for investing in historic structures, Saul-Sena said. "That's a pretty significant incentive."

Saul-Sena said Tampa could help historic preservation in other ways. People need to learn more about how saving distinctive old buildings adds to the "richness of a community," she said.

She also would like to see a revolving fund that could be used to purchase endangered property and sell it to third parties.

While preservationists like that idea, Mayor Sandy Freedman said the city can't afford it.

"We don't have the resources or the ability to gather the resources to buy every historic structure that might be threatened by the wrecking ball," Freedman said.

Finding ways to preserve historic buidings in the future will have to be done on a "case by case basis," she said.

In the case of the Lykes' buildings, preservationists still hoped last week that the non-profit Trust for Public Land would save the landmarks by buying them or trading other property for them.

Tampa preservationists know the trust's work well. In 1989, it bought and repaired the vacant El Centro Espanol at Seventh Avenue and 16th Street in Ybor City. The trust later sold the brick building, which has been designated as a National Historic Landmark, to the state for $1.4-million. As part of the sale agreement, the state will lease the building to the Historic Tampa-Hillsborough County Preservation Board for 50 years.

Despite the hopes of local preservationists, an attorney for the trust held out little hope last week for a last-minute rescue.

"To say that this is the 11th hour is an understatement," said Harvey Abrams, an attorney for the trust's southeast regional office in Tallahassee.

Abrams said the trust would work with Lykes only if the company indicated that it wanted to talk. The trust would not approach Lykes on its own, he said.

Local preservationists began talking to managers of the trust last summer about acquiring the buildings but couldn't put together an offer acceptable to Lykes.

In late January, for example, Ham wrote Lykes chairman and president Tom Rankin with a proposal to have a non-profit organization option the buildings and the block they sit on for 24 months, then buy them for no more than $40 a square foot. That's about half of what an appraiser for Lykes said the property was worth last week.

At the end of the two-year option period, the buyer would make a 10 percent down payment and have another 36 months to pay the balance of the purchase price. In the meantime, the buyer would pay only 5.5 percent interest.

It took less than a week for Rankin to reject the offer, saying that Lykes would not risk tying up the property for five years.

Despite that rejection and last week's decision, preservationists still hope that somehow, some way, they can find a way to save the buildings.

"Certainly," Ham said, "based on a year and a half's worth of efforts, you hope until the end."